Tea rooms first appeared in England in the 18th century, and the first tea room, Twinings, has stood in the same spot for over 300 years.
Why did English people start drinking tea?
Once the reserve of the rich, tea was popularised by Catherine of Braganza, queen consort of Charles II. While it had previously been used as a medicinal drink, Catherine made it her beverage of choice. It soon became a court favourite.
Initially, due to the high tax on tea, only the richest in society could afford it. And when a spoonful of sugar was introduced, it became even more exclusive. But the British bias for a brew soon trickled down to the lower classes, so it was smuggled into the country. Only in 1783, when William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister, was the tea tax slashed, and the masses could finally appease their craving for a cuppa.
Who invented afternoon tea?
In 1840, afternoon tea was dreamed up by Anna, Duchess of Bedford, to get her through the long hours between lunch and dinner. While it began as a personal indulgence, Anna started inviting friends to join her for tea, cake, and bread and butter, and the custom’s popularity grew. This led to the opening of tea rooms across the country, serving items similar to Anna’s preferred menu.
Today we might be more inclined to have a mug of tea and a biscuit at home. But if you’d like to experience the refinement of afternoon tea in a historical setting, take a look through this list.
1. Twinings, London
In 1706, Thomas Twining bought Tom’s Coffee House on the Strand. This was a perfect business place, as this was where the wealthy residents of London moved after the Great Fire of London.
Not wishing to compete with the crowds of coffee houses in the city, some 2000 at the time, Twining introduced the increasingly fashionable tea despite the high taxes on it. This was an astute business move. Although London ladies loved tea, they could not enter the coffee houses to pick up their purchases, having to send a servant. However, Twining opened the world’s first dry tea and coffee shop, and ladies were allowed to browse the wares for themselves! It may not sound particularly revolutionary, but this was a big deal for women.
Some famous customers included novelist Jane Austen and the artist William Hogarth. Before he found fame, Hogarth struggled to settle his tab at the shop, so he and Twining struck a deal: Twining would pay his debt if Hogarth painted his portrait. That portrait still hangs in the Twinings tasting room today.
2. Bettys, York, North Yorkshire
Perhaps the most iconic tea room in the country, Bettys of York, was founded by Fritz Butzer, a Swiss baker and chocolatier, when he emigrated to England in 1907.
When he first arrived, he had lost the address of his destination. He only remembered that it sounded something like ‘bratwurst’. After asking around, he was eventually put on a train to Bradford by a helpful local. Here, he worked at Swiss confectionary Bonnet & Sons.
Eventually, Butzer settled in Harrogate. He changed his name to Frederick Belmont and advertised himself as a ‘chocolate specialist’. While there, he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Claire Appleton, and married her.
With support from his new wife’s family, Belmont opened the first Bettys in 1919 and expanded the business in the 1920s and 30s. By 1937, Belmont had his sights set on York, the confectionery capital of Britain. So confident was Belmont, he opened Bettys, York opposite the long-established Terry’s café.
During the Second World War, Bettys York was famous not for its cream cakes but for its bar, popular with local servicemen. Lucky Bettys escaped significant damage when hit by an incendiary bomb in 1942. They avoided being requisitioned by the army by proving their usefulness to the war effort by providing meals and drinks to the servicemen.
We don’t know who the titular ‘Betty’ was, but a few possibilities have been put forward. It could have been named for the granddaughter of the Chairman of Bettys, who interrupted the first board meeting carrying a tea tray. It could have been named after Betty Lupton, ‘Queen of the Harrogate Wells’. Or, perhaps it was named after a contemporary musical about a maid who wins the love of a duke. Whoever Betty was, the iconic tea room is renowned in York and all over the country.
3. Blossom’s Tea Rooms, Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire
These historic tea rooms are housed in a Grade II-listed former canal lock keepers’ cottage dated 1854.
Stourport-on-Severn is perhaps the only town in Britain to have been built up solely because of the coming of the canals. Having started life as a rural village, Stourport became the busiest inland port in the Midlands, save Birmingham, in 1771 when the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal arrived.
The canal basins in the town are made up of five historic basins and house nearly 100 narrowboats and yachts, five canal locks, and a dry dock. Later, it became a significant tourist attraction for visitors from the Black Country.
After a period of neglect in the 2000s, the town was regenerated. The canals continue to draw in tourists from around the country, many of whom flock to Blossom’s for rest and refreshment.
4. Thatched Cottage Hotel, Brockenhurst, Hampshire
As the name suggests, the Thatched Cottage Hotel was once a cottage but is now a hotel and restaurant with a dedicated tea room.
The Grade II listed building dates back to 1627, having been built in the reign of Charles I. A few years later, the village of Brockenhurst became a favourite hunting haunt for his son Charles II, who imported deer from France in 1670 to add to his quarry.
During World War One, wounded soldiers were treated in makeshift hospitals in Brockenhurst’s houses, hotels, and fields. Many of the soldiers came from around the world, including Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand. In fact, there are almost 100 graves of New Zealand soldiers in the parish churchyard, close to the grave of the famous New Forest snake catcher, Brusher Mills.
In addition to hotel services and a gin bar, you can also enjoy cream tea in the Thatched Cottage’s tea room.
5. Chestfield Barn, Chestfield, Kent
This late medieval barn was once part of a farm, the farmhouse of which is now the Chestfield Golf Club House. The area was part of the manor of Chestfield, once owned by the half-brother of William the Conqueror, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux.
In 1920, George Reeves bought the manor, converting it into a garden city. Reeves constructed a 700-acre golf course in 1924. Abe Mitchell converted the barn into a golf house to service the course.
Reeves was adamant there be no pub in Chestfield (he was a teetotaller), and the barn became the tea rooms. In 1988, Shepherd Neame purchased the building, restored it, and became a pub. Sorry, George.
6. The Aviary Cafe, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
The family-run Aviary Café dates to the late 19th century, set in the beautiful Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa.
Contrary to its name, the building was first used as a tea room and only afterwards became an aviary. The Victorian park was first laid out in 1831 and developed into the formal gardens we see today after 1846. They were named for Dr Henry Jephson, the famous doctor who promoted Leamington as a spa.
Like many parks, it declined after the Second World War. Still, it was restored by Warwick District Council in the early 2000s, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. During this time, the aviary was turned back into a café and lived to serve another cuppa.
7. The Orchard Tea Gardens, Grantchester, Cambridgeshire
A favourite haunt of local intellectuals, the Orchard Tea Gardens opened almost by accident. The Orchard was first planted in 1868, close to Orchard House.
In 1897, when the house was owned by Mrs Stevenson, a group of Cambridge students asked if they could have tea beneath the trees, and thus a tradition was born. Students would cycle, row, or walk from nearby Cambridge to Grantchester to enjoy tea in the orchard. Famous names included Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, and Prince Charles.
In 1989, just over a century after the tradition was first started, Orchard House was bought by Robin Callan, who established the Tea Garden Trust to save the area from housing development. Though many former patrons donated, the Trust failed, and Callan instead bought the Orchard himself. Callan reopened the Orchard Tea Room in 1992, believing it to be ‘a shrine to intellect’, thanks to all of the famed intelligentsia who frequented the Tea Gardens.
Now, the Tea Gardens host an annual First World War memorial, with a candlelit for each year since the conflict began. They burn on the 4th of August from 8.43pm (the ‘going down of the sun’) to 11pm (midnight in continental Europe, when hostilities officially began).
8. The Bridge Tea Rooms, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire
Today’s building that houses the Bridge Tea Rooms dates to 1502, with its second level added in 1675. Since it was built 500 years ago, the building has been used as a tailor, a blacksmith, and an antique shop, until it became a tea room in 1989.
It is apparently haunted like many old buildings, especially ones with as many lives as the Bridge Tea Rooms. Fortunately, the ghost is reported to be a happy presence, and some customers have spotted a woman dressed in a crinoline, rushing around busily.
9. The Whitmore Tea Rooms, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire
The Whitmore estate has been around since the Domesday Book and has been cared for by the Mainwaring family since 1519, who still own and reside at the estate.
The original hall structure was encased in red brick during the reign of Charles II and was finally completed in 1676. One of the estate’s most notable features is a rare surviving example of an Elizabethan stable block.
Also on the estate is the Whitmore Tea Rooms, which operate in an old coach house. Over 150 years old, it would have once included lodgings. The building has previously been used as an art gallery and restaurant.
10. The Thomas Oken Tea Rooms, Warwick, Warwickshire
The Grade II* Thomas Oken Tea Rooms are named after the building’s most famous resident. Oken was a 16th-century merchant and politician who saw all five of the Tudor monarchs on the throne of England and became the richest man in Warwick throughout his life.
As well as dealing in wool and woven fabrics, Oken was the Master of the Guild of Holy Trinity and Saint George in 1545, the year that Warwick was granted its town charter. In this role, he also had to negotiate with the King’s Commissioners when Henry VIII dissolved the guilds to seize their assets for the crown. Oken managed to secure a substantial amount of the Church and Guild endowments for the local corporation and charitable funds. Later, in 1557, he became Bailiff of the Corporation.
After he died in 1573, he left his fortune to the town. He arranged the schoolmaster’s salary, annual payments to ‘the poor’, the paving of some streets, the repair of the bridge and wells, the wages of the herdsmen and the beadle, and the provision of several almshouses.
The Thomas Oken charity still exists today and owns the tea room building, the rent for which goes to causes for the benefit of the people of Warwick. Oken’s will also provided £1 (worth much more in the 16th century) a year for a feast, preceded by a service at St Mary’s, which still goes on today, but presumably costs more than £1. If you’re not quite up for a feast, you can always pop into the tea rooms.
11. Harrods, London
Harrods is famous for many things, but its tea rooms rank highly on that list. The original store was founded by Charles Henry Harrod in 1849, originally just a single room, before becoming a department store in the 1880s.
Though it first started serving ‘high tea’ in 1896, the current tea rooms were opened in 1911, named ‘The Georgian’ for George V, who was crowned that year. In fact, Harrods once offered deportment lessons for debutantes being presented to the king.
After the First World War, it became famous for its tea dances, which took place on the restaurant’s sprung dance floor – still there, but now covered with carpet.
In 1928 an art deco skylight was added. It soon after became a popular spot for regimental dinners, such as the Royal Engineers’ Dinner.
The tea room offers a wide range of teas alongside traditional afternoon teas – or champagne if you’re in the mood for something a little more decadent.
12. Heckington Mill, Heckington, Lincolnshire
Initially built in 1830 by Edward Ingledew of Gainsborough for Michael Hare, Heckington Mill originally had five sails.
After a thunderstorm in 1892, the cap and sails blew off the mill. It was repaired by John Pocklington, using the cap and sails of another mill in Boston, now with eight sails.
The bricks from that same mill were used to build the mill house at Heckington for John Pocklington and his family, where the tea room now sits.
When the mill stopped working in 1946 and fell into disrepair until it was bought by Kesteven County Council in 1953. After restoration and repair work in 1986 and 2004, the mill is again in complete working order, owned by Lincolnshire County Council.
The role of Historic England
Many tea rooms in England are protected as listed buildings. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.